|Toll of Time
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Yeah,” Greenly says, and then he turns to Paul. “Hey, it’s some doctor.”
It’s going to storm soon, and Paul only wishes he knows that because he’s looking out the window. But he just doesn’t have any fucking luck.
At least it isn’t the usual open-shut moment-of-passion slaying; whoever had done this had had the sense to sit in the chair facing both the door and the window, so that boots out manslaughter right there. If he has to get down on his godddamned knees now, it’d damn well better be worth it. “Hang up.”
“Hang the fuck up, fuckhead.” Yeah, it’s crude by Smecker’s standards, but after eighteen straight hours on the job, he’s not in the mood for elegance. And even if he was, he wouldn’t waste it on this shitty little efficiency with its water-stained ceiling and its generations of bloodstains on the floor. Forensics was going to have a hell of a time not getting the DNA mixed up. “What about the bathroom?” Paul adds, getting slowly to his feet.
He must be getting tired, if he can’t glare fast enough to send that squinty little speculation slithering off of Greenly’s face. Big puppydog shrugs and flattens himself against the door for Paul. “Definitely dead beforehand. Drag marks all over. There’s a chip out of the rim of the tub, and I’m thinking maybe it was a butcher’s knife.”
“Cribbing notes from the late-night horror flicks, are you? Vincent Price would be so proud.” Standing up is a delicate operation when the far wall’s less than an arm’s-length away and the near wall isn’t—it’s a door. Paul manages it okay, but pivoting to slip out the door makes his knee lock up, sudden and painful like an icepick’s been taken to it. He catches himself on the frame, even makes it look natural, but not before Greenly notices.
“What, your coffee running low?” Ed asks. He’s just shy of insubordination.
Well, Paul was always a round-down kind of guy, so he elbows the fucking smartass and sashays on while Greenly’s coughing and clutching his stomach. “Now that you mention it, I do feel a tad peckish, dahling. How about a muffin with that coffee?”
“Son of a bitch.” For once, Greenly’s not needing a smack to the forehead. The angry ruefulness in his words takes care of that.
* * *
Other guys might need to hit a gym to keep their svelte good looks, but all Paul’s ever needed is sprinting from one case to another, driven on by the mad clicking of pieces together inside his brain. When he’s feeling a touch nerdy, he compares it to a Tetris game where the stakes are his sanity if he runs low on pieces.
Anyway, even when he was young, he wasn’t good-looking. He’s glad for it, since there’s a hell of a lot more mileage out of being arresting and that’s what he is.
But right now, groaning like a sick cow in this fucking file-room that smells of dog piss, he’s fucking ecstatic that nobody seems to be noticing him. Maybe he’s old, and maybe he’s bitter, but he’s still got a head on his neck and his neck still gets cricks when his head droops. He’ll keep it up, thank you, and the change can go jangle itself up the MacManuses’ asses.
His fucking knee.
Paul has never actually had a sledgehammer taken to his kneecap, but he’s seen the results of that kind of damage, and he’s been blessed/cursed with an excellent imagination that doing his own forensic work has exacerbated. He’s probably not that far off base in thinking this is an analogous situation.
In his desk, which is down the hall and past fifty million people that would adore a chance at payback, is a bottle of pills. In his pocket is his cell phone, which is ringing and that is probably his doctor on the line, and in his head is just one thought: Fuck.
His thought’s a verb. He’ll leave it up to his imagination to decide what its object is, and in the meantime, he’s going to grit his teeth and move because against all logic, that’s supposed to help. Yeah, he’s going to get off this rat-eaten carpet and stick those files that he’d been fruitlessly pulling for the last hour back in their drawer, and then he’s going to stroll back into business.
When Paul grabs a drawer-handle for support, he gets two knives in two joints for the price of one stupid idea. Hell, he can even bite his tongue and not notice till the blood’s just choking him. He’s going to be stuck here, hissing at his own fucking body, and sooner or later someone else is going to need a backfile and there it’ll go. Thirty fucking years of reputation, of hard work—a fucking lifestyle, for the love of little mercies.
“Yo, Dolly. Seen Sourface around?”
Oh, joy. Irony would shovel Greenly right to the front.
Well, nobody learns how to really give abuse without first learning what it’s like to take it. Paul bites on his goddamn bloody tongue, and he hangs onto the drawer with his goddamn hand with its defunct wrist, and he gets on his goddamned feet.
“Hey, there you are. Listen, I—”
“Conveniently forgot to mention that they’re cousins—for fuck’s sake, he even got arrested for public disturbance at her wedding reception. Greenly, what the fuck do I need you for if you can’t even do a routine background check?” Before he can think about it, Paul’s overtaken by habit and is punctuating his words with back-slaps to the middle of Greenly’s chest. Funnily enough, his wrist hurts less and less the more he smacks Greenly.
The muscle at the corner of Greenly’s jaw twitches hard. Then he bats Paul away, snarling. “Jesus Christ, man. It’s fucking well not so you can put your hands all over me.”
“Pity. Because of the six million people in this city, I think you could use a laying-on of hands the most. Born again!” At least letting his words roll out like thunder doesn’t fuck with Paul’s throat. It almost is enough to make up for the fact that he isn’t recovering fast enough to walk normally and has to cover it up by shuffling along at a granny’s pace. “Get some fire back in you, boy. Or at least pin down that goddamned street preacher and get his statement.”
“I’m working on it, okay? Jesus Christ couldn’t keep track of all the streetcorners in this city.” Ed sounds like he wants to slam Paul into the wall, which is about par for this time of the day.
And then he does something odd: he looks at Paul and he lowers his voice, and he even checks for who’s nearby. “Hey. Something up? You’re looking kinda…ragged.”
“Can’t wait for the tag to go on my toe, can you? Well, you’re gonna have to wait a little longer to try for king of the goddamned precinct, honey.” Finally Paul’s knee is loosened up enough and he can stride off like he fucking means it.
And God, does he mean it. The second he’s in his office, he’s downing aspirin like it’s tabs. When his cell goes off, he lets it ring five times before he bothers answering because he’s slurping stale coffee to wash it all down. But it’s no good: he can still taste the dry-bone bitterness in his throat when he answers and hears his doc’s secretary whining at him.
* * *
“Some men get shot for less,” Paul says. He doesn’t bother taking his feet off his coffeetable, or even turning around to see. It’s been an hour and a half since he took this position, and reviewing casefiles had kept him too busy to remember that till right now.
“Christ,” Ed says. He shuts the door just as quietly as he’d opened it, which only proves that autopilot is his default setting since silence has just become unnecessary. “What kind of mother did you have?”
None of the files are heavy enough to throw with the expectation that they’ll knock out Ed on impact, and if Paul’s going to resort to that level of immaturity, he wants some assurance that it’ll be in private. He’d make such a great character for a Hemingway novel right now. “A woman with an exceptionally ugly vagina.”
There’s a moment. Then Ed kind of snuffles a laugh, like he’s shoving down a puking urge at the same time, and wanders around the front of the couch. He loses the leather jacket, which immediately drops his ego halfway to realistic levels, and then he just stares at Paul. The thoughts are turning in his eyes and all those gears are missing half their teeth.
“Is there a reason you’re invading my privacy?” Paul finally says. He hopes it isn’t so ridiculous that he can’t deal with it in a couple of choice sentences, because his knee is starting up and he wants Ed out of here before he goes to fucking town on it.
Or before it goes to town on him, goddamned treacherous system of cartilage and bone and fluid that it is.
Ed actually has the guts to half-grin at Paul. “Your doctor called while you were in the interrogation room. You know, while I had your phone.”
The verb’s fuck and the object is you, you goddamned careless shithead that’s twenty years behind. And the action is Paul rising and the reaction is his knee blowing it so instead of punching Ed he has to grab for the man’s shirt, but that works out because Ed is under him and about to fucking take it like he should one. Like he should be, instead of it being Paul and how fucked up is it, anyway? How fucked up is it that after there’s been enough time to learn the ropes, and learn caution, and after there’s been enough hell at the end of the day for it to have been earned, there’s no sweet easy peace? No, that’s for the brainless young people.
The old…well, they hear every creak and crack as if it’s a prelude to doomsday. They spit and they have to look at it because every second their body gets closer to turning back into that and they hate it. They hate the goddamned flesh that ages and weakens, that can’t flex so smoothly to slip out of clothing. The skin that doesn’t feel fine and silky with sweat beneath rough fingers, that doesn’t forgive a rake of nails or a bite so quickly, that doesn’t snap back in place so easily when a pinch draws it out. The joints that can no longer keep up with the mind that tells them lift his arm and touch his side and hurry up get your dick inside, and instead forces them to linger. To drag over the bend of a throat, to envy the elasticity of skin drawn tight over a heaving chest, to stroke too long the thighs that are parting for some reason for their worn-out, pitiful attempt at seeking rapture once again in the wrong place.
They live in a world that’s numbered steps from the end; the urgency of each moment pounds at them like frantic heels against the floor, gets under their skin like the sudden closing of long lashes over wildly rolling eyes. Their bodies are jury-rigged wrecks and they see it all the time, in all things—in the easy way a younger back arches, in the firm grasp of a younger body around their cock, in the heedless abandon of a younger climax.
And most especially they see it in the way a younger man collapses to the side, his limbs a Gordian knot, trusting that he’ll be able to rise again whenever he wishes to, and in the way their own fucking knee spasms like a motherfucking shotgun son of a bitch in the very same moment.
Paul falls to the side, not because he’s that worn out, but because if he doesn’t, half his leg is going to explode right off. Only that makes it worse, and fuck, but he’s probably going to rip apart his sofa cushion.
“Holy shit! Are you—oh, right. Um. Right. Okay.”
Ed gets off his cock somewhere along the line, and after that Ed loses his mind, because he makes a bottomless cup with his hands around Paul’s knee and he squeezes.
* * *
“You’re so fucking lucky that I have two older brothers that did nothing but try and beat on me when we were younger,” Ed grumbles. He’s still got his hands on Paul’s knee, only now he’s being slightly less suicidal and rubbing it instead of trying to shove at the bone. There is not, much to Paul’s disappointment, a new bruise on the other man’s face. Apparently Ed’s physical reflexes are quick even if his mind isn’t.
Doesn’t that make Paul feel better. When he thinks his knee can take it, he’s going to get up and give the jackass a good whack on the head. “What, exactly, are you doing?”
“And that my grandma was a fucking bitch, always making us massage her sore joints.” Ed snorts to himself, then rolls his shoulders. When he stops, they’re set like he’s prepared for impact. “Don’t start, okay? I know this isn’t going to make you any fucking nicer—fuck, if that triple-triple espresso didn’t, then I don’t know what would.”
“So you’re just doing this out of the kindness of your heart,” Paul drawls. “Forgive me if I don’t believe you.”
A little flinch, but Ed is doggedly still at it. Maybe his head hunches a little lower. “Fuck you. Believe whatever you have to so your twisted little mind won’t implode.”
Paul is not Catholic, therefore he does not guilt-trip himself lightly, and he does not allow others to guilt-trip him. It’s an old mantra. It’s slightly creaky right now, and he wishes he could shove it up someone’s ass, except then he’d have nothing to keep him from turning into a right morass of soft-hearted wishy-washiness.
* * *
Ed manages to hold himself in till he’s got one arm in his coat before that pathetic little calculating glint shows in his eye. Sometimes it’s a real wonder how he survived the BPD, which is no collection of geniuses but which isn’t a Sunday-school either. “Could you just…I don’t know, stop—”
He is, however, sensible enough to let Paul get to his own feet. The knee is still aching, but it’s working. Paul can straighten his own fucking files, and pick up his own fucking shirt, and throw his own fucking trash out the door, if he wanted. “Ed. It’s three in the morning. Just…stop.”
Then he takes that stupid leather affectation and tosses it back on the sofa before heading for the bedroom. Honestly, fucking black leather in July in Boston, when it nearly is possible to make tea without ever adding water to the cup.
“Don’t expect breakfast unless you’re cooking it yourself,” Paul says.
“I wouldn’t eat anything you made anyway,” Ed retorts.
It’s another little piece of self-sufficiency traded away. But as that fucking jackass fumbles himself into bed, Paul suspects it might be a more even trade than he’s made in the past. It’d better be; his body’s breaking down, so he can’t afford for his mind to go anywhere but forward. That’s the thing about years going by: every lesson sticks a little harder.